After seeing “The Promise” recently and attending a press conference with director Terry George and stars Christian Bale, Oscar Isaac, and Charlotte Le Bon (see my story on that narrative film), I wanted to be sure and see Joe Berlinger’s documentary “Intent to Destroy” at the Tribeca Film Festival. Also see Paula Schwartz’s coverage of the documentary’s opening.
Both “The Promise” and “Intent to Destroy” focus on the Armenian genocide in Turkey in the early 1900’s. The documentary combines footage from the filming of “The Promise,” along with archival photos, interviews from experts, and testimony from survivors who remember watching adults being murdered.
We learn in the film that in the late 1800’s, Armenians, who were Christians, were painted as infidels among the Turkish population. The people were afraid that Armenians were going to take over, and they were euphoric about the possibility of a new beginning. As has happened so often in history, a group of people became scapegoated as the “problem,” and by doing so, the eradication of that group was more palatable for the population.
In 1915 within an eight-month period, a million Armenians were killed by their own government. More were killed the following year. Terry George, director of “The Promise,” says in the documentary, “The soul of the whole Armenian race was burned by this.”
One man who watched his mother being murdered says in the film, “It’s an experience I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.” Another says a bunch of boys from his village were placed in a pile on the ground. He was on the bottom, and the boys on top were murdered first. He was hit by a bayonet in the face, but he played dead and managed to survive.
During the filming of “The Promise,” there’s a particularly harrowing scene involving the murdered bodies of Armenian villagers in a creek. Everyone on set was in tears by the end of the scene. Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, who plays Oscar Isaac’s mother in the film, couldn’t help but sob after filming, saying that she doesn’t understand why these genocides keep happening and why we can’t stop them.
Kevork Malikyan, who plays Oscar Isaac’s father in “The Promise,” is of Armenian descent. In the documentary, he tells of how his mother’s family was shot, and his mother ran. Eventually, she was taken in by a Kurdish family.
Despite all of the evidence to the contrary, the Turkish government still maintains that there was no genocide. They claim it was just a war, and people from every group were killed. Even some scholars, who are interviewed in the film, insist that this is the case. But Turkey was not at war with the Armenians. These people were killed by their own government in what appears to be a deliberate attempt to eradicate the “infidels.”
There are only a few photographs of the genocide, some of which are shown in the film, mirroring the images we’ve seen of the Holocaust. The reason there aren’t more photos from Turkey during that time is that the Turkish government made it against the law to document what was happening to the Armenians and instructed all film labs to report to officials if photos showed up. A German medic named Armin Wegner is responsible for most of the few photos we have.
The U.S. government continues to refuse to formally recognize what happened as a genocide. This is because of Turkey’s geopolitical location between Europe and Asia, which gives it considerable leverage over other countries in the world. During his time as president, Woodrow Wilson made efforts to pressure the Turks to return lands and make reparations to the Armenians, but ultimately, he failed.
An American conflict photographer on set of “The Promise” tells in the documentary that she wrote a paper about the Armenian genocide when she was a child, and her teacher told her she made it up, that it never happened. Drama ensued as there were meetings at the school about her insubordination.
As one person says in the film, “Genocide is ultimately about erasure, and denial is a way to ensure erasure.”
Hollywood attempted to make a film about the genocide in the 1930’s, but the Turkish government put pressure on the State Department, saying that no Hollywood movie would be allowed on Turkish screens if the film was made.
Director Atom Egoyan is also interviewed about the film he made in 2002 about the genocide and why it never received distribution. There was a threat, he said, that Armenians still in Turkey would “feel the effects” if the film was distributed. He personally received hundreds of letters from the Turkish army, a book was published discrediting his career and calling the film propaganda, and he was accused of cultural “art film terrorism.” He received personal death threats, and a group threatened to bomb theaters if the film was shown. So distribution was pulled.
An actor in “The Promise” told an interviewer that he was getting ready to work on a film about the Armenian genocide, and the next thing he knew, the Turkish ambassador called him and sent him books that denied the genocide, painting the Armenians as instigators.
Hrant Dink, an Armenian journalist in Turkey who advocated for reconciliation, was assassinated by a Turkish nationalist in 2007, and John Marshall Evans, the former U.S. Ambassador to Armenia, was fired for calling it a genocide. Condoleeza Rice sent him a letter containing the written apology that he was expected to make. He did apologize because he felt he had no choice, but the firing was presumably the result of pressure from the Turkish government.
As one man in the film who lost 11 members of his family during the genocide says, “I have to beg people to believe me, and that’s what hurts the most.”
This film is a cautionary tale for America, as we demonize groups of people and try to justify treating others without compassion. It’s a harrowing account of what systemic hatred can do and the horrific atrocities we humans can commit against one another.